What Is Osteopenia?
Bones are the building blocks of our bodies. They support the structure of our bodies and give us a working frame to support our movements. However, for some, bones may be a cause of concern.
Osteopenia describes a bone weakness where the density of the bones is less than optimum, but not poor enough to be diagnosed as osteoperosis. As such, Osteopenia is a less severe bone loss, although Osteopenia is often considered to be a precursor to osteoperosis. Still, someone with a diagnosis of Osteopenia is less likely to suffer a bone fracture or other complications.
Current estimates indicate that approximately 34 million people have Osteopenia - 80% of whom are women.
What Causes Osteopenia?
Bones naturally thin as a person ages. Starting in middle age, existing bone cells are reabsorbed into the body faster than new bone is created. As this happens, our bones lose minerals, mass, and structure, which increases the risk of fractures and breaks.
All people begin to lose bone mass starting around age thirty - when our bones reach peak BMD (bone mineral density).
Not everyone who is diagnosed with osteopenia may not suffer bone loss - it may be a result of a natural lower bone density.
Osteopenia may be the result of many other diseases, conditions or treatments for diseases.
What Are The Risks for Osteopenia?
There are a number of potential risk factors that increase the likelihood of someone developing Osteopenia. They include:
Eating disorders or metabolism problems that don't allow the body to take in enough vitamins and minerals.
Chemotherapy, or corticosteroid use (as a treatment for conditions such as asthma)
Family history of osteoporosis
Thin body frame
Medications (Corticosterioids, anti-seizure medications)
Malabsorption issues (Celia sprue)
Chronic Inflammation (rheumatiod arthritis)
Are There Any Symptoms of Osteopenia?
Osteopenia has no real signs or symptoms beyond bone fractures. There is no pain associated with thinning of the bones. As such, osteopenia may go undiagnosed for years.
How is Osteopenia Diagnosed?
The primary method of diagnosing Osteopenia is through a bone density scan or an x-ray, as well as ultrasound. These methods may be combined to evaluate the density of the bones, so that a diagnosis might be made.
Often a test called a bone mineral density test is utilized, which uses dial energy x-ray, or DXA, to measure the density of various areas, including the hip, spine, and wrist, which are frequently fractured. This scan results in a "T-score" which is a comparison score to a healthy 30-year-old. A score of -1.0, a diagnosis of Osteopenia is made and the person has a higher risk of bone fracture. A score of -2.0 indicates twice the risk of fracture.
Who Gets Osteopenia?
Similarly to Osteoporosis, Osteopenia is diagnosed most often in post-menopausal women, directly as a result of decreased estrogen levels. Various lifestyle factors may add to the potential risk of a diagnosis of Osteopenia, such as a lack of exercise, drug and alcohol use, and use of corticosteroid medications (typically prescribed for asthma).
In younger women, this condition may be found in women athletes, in which she also is diagnosed with amenorrhea (absence of periods) and disordered eating. This is due to the tendency of female athletes to have lower body weight, a propensity for asthma, and lower body fat percentage. This may lead to lower levels of estrogen or corticosterioid use, which may increase the risk of premature development of Osteopenia, which is a normal part of aging.
It is important that those with significant risk factors be evaluated. While not all bone fractures related to Osteopenia are painful, some require surgical care, and all should be treated quickly and efficiently. Further, for those in the elderly population who suffer from fractures, they are also at a higher risk of additional treatment or death. Of those who suffer a hip fracture, 30% require nursing-care and 20% die within one year. Common complications include pneumonia and blood clots.
How Is Osteopenia Treated?
Treatment options often include lifestyle changes, such as taking vitamin supplements, such as calcium and vitamin D. There are medications that may be used, but often lifestyle change is a component of treatment, regardless of other medical intervention. They include - weight-bearing exercise, quitting smoking or excessive alcohol use, and vitamin supplaments.
Additional Resources For Osteopenia:
National Osteoporosis Foundation - the leading consumer and community-focused health organization dedicated to the prevention of osteoporosis and broken bones, the promotion of strong bones for life and the reduction of human suffering through programs of public and clinician awareness, education, advocacy and research.
Foundation for Osteoporisis Research and Education - non-profit resource center dedicated to preventing osteoporosis through research and education of the public (and medical community). Information about bone density, research, and other scholarly articles.